The Washington Deptartment of Transportation (WSDOT) has a significant problem – not enough staffing. Like many private or public organizations, the Covid-19 pandemic has raised havoc with enough WSDOT crews.
For the ferry system, the pandemic led to staff retiring or moving on to other jobs. With a limited number left because of the vaccination mandate, WSDOT ferries has hired more than 150 new crew members to fill in behind departing staff, but it is still not enough. As a result, there will be more limited operations across Puget Sound such as only one vessel running the Edmonds-Kingston crossing instead of two until more staffing is secured.
In the mountains, WSDOT recently warned of less roadway service and longer closures of roads thanks to a shortage of staff. So when it snows hard or there is avalanche control at Stevens, Snoqualmie or other higher elevation roadways, it will take longer to clear and treat the roads and only limited lanes may be cleared.
WSDOT has about 1500 staff directly related to their winter operations across the state and as of mid-October, about 300 jobs had not been filled thanks to a lack of applicants. With another La Nina winter in store and the higher likelihood of lowland snow in the North Sound, the limited WSDOT staffing also means I-5, US 2 and other state maintained highways may not get cleared and treated for snow as quickly as in the past.
WSDOT also recently closed all the rest areas along I-5 in the North Sound from the Silver Lake Rest Area north to the Custer Rest Area near the Canadian border – due to lack of staffing.
Governor Jay Inslee has stated that the WSDOT staffing model, particularly for the ferry system, needs to change but that will take additional funding from the Legislature. The service limitations have prompted some Legislative lawmakers to take notice. Action is planned for the next Legislative session that begins in January of next year.
Yet until then, motorists in the North Sound will need to be even more prepared for hazardous winter weather driving conditions. Preparedness examples include ensuring your tires have good tread and you have tire chains handy and ready for use. Make sure to keep at least a half a tank of gas in your vehicle in case of getting stuck or there are extended road closures, and have blankets, gloves, food, water and other necessities in your vehicle, plus a shovel and kitty litter for extra traction when needed.
For those crossing Puget Sound, plan even further ahead when using to the ferry system and be prepared for longer lines at ferry terminals. For the latest ferry schedules including alternate schedules, visit https://wsdot.com/ferries/schedule/default.aspx
WSDOT has a revised traffic website at https://wsdot.wa.gov/travel . The website provides real-time traffic information including blocking incidents, drive times, current weather conditions, webcams, and more. And WSDOT has a traffic/ferry app that can be obtained from any app store.
North Sounders deserve a fully staffed WSDOT team to help maintain safe roads, particularly during adverse winter weather conditions, and a fully operating ferry system. The Legislature needs to take action early next year to make that happen and help our economy keep rolling.